Building social skills with a little help from Bear

30th March 2023

Concerns that school children have been missing out on social skills during lockdown have been addressed thanks to funding from the Spark programme.

The Laal Collective is an arts-based social enterprise set up in 2021 to encourage schools and community groups to celebrate themselves through the creation of story, performance and film.

It received £4,750 from Spark’s Try It Fund to run a bespoke project using the creative arts, particularly puppetry, to engage children’s imagination and allow them to explore a range of issues.

Spark is part of the Transforming West Cumbria programme funded through Sellafield Ltd and aims to inspire, encourage, and nurture both new and existing social entrepreneurs. Try It awards grants of up to £5,000 to help trial and test new ideas and services.

Thanks to the grant, Seascale Nursery and Primary School was picked to be the testbed for a new way to get kids collaborating with each other through storytelling. ‘Welcoming The Stranger’ encourages children to work together to write a new story, which was turned into a printed book and a set of blankets.

The project introduced a puppet – a life size bear –  who was lost, frightened, and needed help. Children aged three to 11 worked with Bear to create his story and by doing so, empathised with Bear’s situation, his sense of loss and need to belong and to be made welcome.

Ali McCaw, co-director of The Laal Collective, said: “The initiative came out of a conversation with some schools, in addressing the issue of improving social skills and welcoming new people into west Cumbria, along with helping new arrivals who may be struggling with friendships.

“So, we used a lost bear for the children to write a story around. With using an animal and not a person, it gave the children a blank canvas, with no preconceived ideas about the character, which you would get – if we were writing about a human.”

“The story was then brought to life in a collection of patchwork quilts, which the children made, then their story was published into a new book.

“The project has supported the children in developing their sense of empathy for others, which had been severely challenged due to multiple lockdowns in the pandemic. By meeting Bear and coming to understand his sense of loss and confusion, children were able to support him and this led to reaffirming their sense of understanding of others,” said Ali.

The collaborative arts project will now be offered to other schools in the area, to be involved with, to help foster social integrations between children across all age groups – as they go onto write their version of the lost bear.

Seascale Nursery and Primary School teacher Mrs Thompson, who helped bring the classes together to work on Bear’s story, said: “Each child created a patchwork piece of the story and made a quilt from the pieces – for their class’s reading corner.

“Each class got involved in the creation of ‘Bears story,’ as Bear arrived not knowing his own backstory, because he had lost his memory. He only knew he had had a long journey and he had been frightened.

“His only possession was a small patchwork ‘blankey,’ that he thought had some connection with his grandma. From there, the children had to work together equally, to build the Bear’s backstory.”

This pilot has given the social enterprise a template to create a model of working for other schools and has helped demonstrate the outcomes which will lead to further investment locally.